• June 9, 2010
  • By Juan Martinez, Editorial Assistant, CRM magazine

Infiltrating the Community

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A brand-online community is a great place for a company to engage consumers—but where does a marketer go when the opinions he seeks aren’t those of brand enthusiasts? Monitoring social media sites such as Facebook or Twitter may be sufficient to judge customer sentiment; these sites can also provide companies a place to form fan pages and product groups. But companies monitoring these sites are engaging mostly with customers who already have some familiarity with their product. What’s the alternative 

if the goal is to tap a new pool of prospective customers? A site such as Gather.com allows a company to gain access to and interact with customers who may fit its target demographic but may not have experience with its product. 

Launched in 2005, Gather.com was originally intended as a social network where people could connect around a shared passion. Unlike Facebook, which connects members with people they already know, Gather.com connects people based on their similar interests. The 8.1 million unique visitors each month—an 800 percent increase over last year—share expertise, advice, and views on a variety of topics, and are compensated for the content they provide based on popularity, according to the site. 

With such a rapidly growing network, Gather.com is a prime spot for marketers introducing (or reintroducing) products. Although the majority of Gather.com conversations are not product-related, marketers have begun using the site to offer members free samples in exchange for honest feedback. The feedback provided by a Gather member is automatically shared with the member’s friends, and if those people comment on that feedback, their friends can also see the conversation, and so on, and so on. 

“People like to try new experiences,” says Gather Chief Executive Officer Tom Gerace. “We all love to learn about when our friends have good and bad experiences. This enables us to make better decisions in our own lives.” 

For marketers (and to satisfy the requirements of the Federal Trade Commission) Gather allows complete transparency between customer opinion and potential leads. The first paragraph any member publishes about a product must disclose that the member has been given a free sample or experience. 

“Even if they’ve gotten a token freebie we want to make sure we’re above board at all times,” Gerace claims. “We want honest feedback—good and bad.” 

Several Gather campaigns have already produced results. Last year, Gather ran a promotion designed to drive awareness of Del Monte canned fruits and vegetables, and generate conversations aligning the brand with messages of nutrition and value. For the campaign, Gather created a sponsorship within its “Family Channel,” the site’s primary destination for everything family-related; identified appropriate members to participate in Del Monte product reviews; and included brand messaging of nutrition and value in a series of discussions. By the end of the promotion, the campaign produced more than 4 million ad impressions and more than 1.6 million engagement impressions of branded programming content, and Del Monte saw purchase intent grow by 38 percent (in a survey conducted by Gather). 

Stouffer’s saw similar results from its Gather campaign, a promotion designed to increase awareness; position Stouffer’s as a great-tasting, time-saving option for dinner; and integrate the brand into Gather.com conversations in fun, relevant, and believable ways. In order to achieve these goals, Gather created discussion topics related to key positioning elements of the Stouffer’s campaign, including “special dinner moments” and “spending less time at the stove and more with your family.” Gather also distributed store coupons to members who then published their reviews on Gather. As a result of the campaign, hundreds of members discussed positive experiences with Stouffer’s and recommended favorite entrees. Recommendations showed up in member feeds more than 800,000 times. Stouffer’s also received more than 8 million impressions through run-of-site Gather.com ads, Gather emails, weekly newsletters, marketing modules, and branded content. 

“Marketers have realized that when consumers have a conversation with or about a brand, that conversation has a far greater impact on their purchase intent than if they simply see an ad for that brand,” Gerace contends. “One of the most trustworthy methods of marketing is a recommendation from a friend. Brands that get into the discussion and get real people to talk about or with them in a visible space can have a meaningful impact on their results…and those conversations grow exponentially and that influence spreads.” 

Gerace acknowledges that Gather.com isn’t the only place for companies to directly engage with, and market to, customers. He cites Best Buy Chief Marketing Officer Barry Judge and Scott Monty, the head of social media at Ford Motor Co., as successful examples of Twitter engagement. 

“We’ve already been doing this,” Gerace argues, referring to engagement marketing. “It’s no different than when the butcher let you try a piece of ham so your mom would buy it, or when Baskin-Robbins gave you the sample spoon to figure out your favorite flavor.” 

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